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Surviving a layoff can hurt too

Stress, fear and guilt take their toll on employees left to grapple with the aftermath of workforce losses.

February 02, 2009|Susan Carpenter

Pfizer. Saks. Microsoft. The layoff announcements just keep on coming. And they're going to keep on coming throughout the year if the U.S. economy continues its alarming and ever-deepening spiral into the abyss.

More than 2.5 million Americans lost their jobs in 2008. And at least 2 million more jobs are expected to evaporate in 2009, according to the Conference Board Employment Trends Index -- upping the ranks of the unemployed and forcing laid-off employees to dredge their safety nets and call on every available support system. But laid-off employees aren't the only ones who suffer from staff reductions.

Employees who remain employed are prone to greater role ambiguity and job demands that can, in turn, contribute to greater alcohol consumption and depression, according to a 2003 study on the physical and mental-health effects of surviving layoffs, published by the Institute of Behavioral Science. In addition, the study found that layoff survivors often experience worsening physical health: They eat differently, smoke more, suffer from neck and back pain, and increase their use of sick days. Workplace injuries also rise.

"None of the effects are good," said Frank Landy, author of "Work in the 21st Century." An organizational psychologist, Landy specializes in understanding the emotions of work. "Layoffs clearly have emotional and practical consequences for companies and workers."

Those consequences are, unfortunately, long-term. The psychological fallout of surviving a layoff lasts six years, according to the study published by the Institute of Behavioral Science. And the effects of surviving multiple layoffs are cumulative. They add up rather than dissipate.

"It only takes one action of distrust to lose basic confidence in the employer. It's like a romantic relationship. Once the trust has been undermined, it's very, very difficult to recover," Landy said. "There's no data that suggests workers become more resilient. 'I'm a survivor, hear me shout'? It doesn't happen."

Even so, Evan Wagner is giving it his best can-do spirit. Usually, it's with an ample assist from Diet Coke. The IndyMac Bank corporate communications director downs three cans of the stuff each morning to help him cope with the exhaustion and back pain he blames on overwork.

Wagner, 26, joined the company in mid-2006, when the housing market was riding high and the company had a workforce of 10,000. Two waves of layoffs, two rounds of buyouts and one federal government takeover later, the company is down to 2,000 employees, leaving Wagner to "do the jobs once done by four people," he said in an e-mail he was writing at 1 a.m. on a weeknight while sick with a cold. "I typically work six days a week these days."

He hasn't taken any vacation time in two years -- a decision that "is half by choice and half by necessity. . . . It's nice to know the cash equivalent of my vacation time is there for me when my job ends," he wrote, adding, "The thing about being in a layoff environment is that you're always waiting for the other shoe to drop."

Lingering distrust is one of the final stops on the emotional misery tour taken by most surviving employees. First, there's the disbelief, anxiety and desperation resulting from the initial layoff announcement. Then comes the sweeping sense of relief when one's job is spared, followed, in rapid succession, by guilt, fear and stress.

In a volatile labor climate that's rapidly shedding existing jobs across all sectors of the economy, and during which any available employment may be likely to bring less pay, that emotional trajectory is only amplified.

Helga Meza, 52, has been a social worker for Orange County Children and Family Services since 1981. But her lengthy career as a counselor didn't stop her from experiencing a tidal wave of emotions last December when she was told that 29 of the 200 workers in her office were going to be pink-slipped.

"We were just shocked," said Meza, who, as of Jan. 19 when her co-workers were officially let go, added two children to her already challenging caseload of 26.

Relieved to still have a job but feeling guilty to see so many of the young counselors she'd been mentoring let go, Meza characterizes her current emotional state as "high stress."

"I worry about those kids on my caseload. My sleeping is irregular. I'm eating more," Meza said. "I come home and talk to my husband, and he tells me he doesn't want to hear it because it stresses him out."

The stress Meza describes is acute. Born from conflict, coupled with unpredictability and a lack of control, it's interfering with her daily life and should probably be treated. But counseling isn't part of her self-treatment plan. She says she doesn't have time.

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